Unleash the cops: Interpreting Murray Rothbard

unleash the cops

A Murray Rothbard quote has been floating around several libertarian circles for some time now, and some claim that he is “an out-of-the-closet helicopter pilot.”  This means that he holds the belief that those who do not respect private property rights can be violently removed from society.  The people who have this view tend to, at least in the opinions of many thin libertarians, use it to rationalize extending this to people who are committing very minor rights violations or even to those who aren’t even committing any rights violations at all.  This all comes from Rothbard’s use of the phrase “unleash the cops” in his 1992 essay A Program for Right Wing Populism.

This phrase is from the fifth point of his proposed plan:

5. Take Back the Streets: Get Rid of the Bums. Again: unleash the cops to clear the streets of bums and vagrants. Where will they go? Who cares? Hopefully, they will disappear, that is, move from the ranks of the petted and cosseted bum class to the ranks of the productive members of society.

It’s important to put this in its proper context, especially regarding Rothbard’s use of the word “unleash.”  To cherry pick this quote and claim it as support of the “helicopter pilot” philosophy proves to be fairly dishonest when you look at the point Rothbard makes directly above this one.  Suddenly, “unleash the cops” doesn’t sound like a carte blanche permission slip for the police to do whatever they want to the bums:

4. Take Back the Streets: Crush Criminals. And by this I mean, of course, not “white collar criminals” or “inside traders” but violent street criminals – robbers, muggers, rapists, murderers. Cops must be unleashed, and allowed to administer instant punishment, subject of course to liability when they are in error.

Rothbard pulls no punches with what he feels needs to be done and his position is perfectly clear.  If someone violates another’s rights, the police ought to be allowed to defend the victim.  If the police see a rape, murder, robbery, or any other violent crime, he ought to be able to use violence to put a stop to the aggression.  Laws and any other government arrangement that restricts the cops’ ability to do this should be abolished.  And he clarifies what he means, just in case it wasn’t obvious to any libertarian reading his words in the future, by adding the caveat of “subject of course to liability when they are in error.”

What would be an error?  If Rothbard is saying that the police should be able to “administer instant punishment” for “violent street criminals,” i.e. a property rights violator, then clearly it would be an error to commit violence against someone who is not a property rights violator.  This sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  It’s an expression of the Non-Aggression Principle, which is not uniquely applied to cops; it is applied to everyone.  So Rothbard is only holding the police to the same ethical standards that he would be holding anyone else to.  This is a standard libertarian principle.  This is implicit in his words later in the essay when he says:

So far: every one of these right-wing populist programs is totally consistent with a hard-core libertarian position.

The hard-core libertarian position is that violence is not justified against peaceful individuals and that agents of the state have no special rights or privileges, period.  So to claim that “Rothbard actually agrees with us, not you NAP-thumbing losertarians” does not compute very well.

This further clarifies Rothbard’s point about what he means by “unleash the cops to clear the streets of bums and vagrants.”  It shouldn’t need further clarification, though, as it is painfully obvious that these “helicopter pilots” refuse to correctly interpret the plain English of part of the quote they use: “Hopefully, they will disappear, that is, move from the ranks of the petted and cosseted bum class to the ranks of the productive members of society.”

The goal isn’t simply to violently move people around, it is to remove the perverse incentive structures that help to create the vagrancy in society.  And as it’s already been established, a bum that is staying in a place he shouldn’t be (violating someone’s property rights), then there is justification in putting an end to that.  Yet this should not be interpreted that violence as a means to protect property is necessarily always the preferable action.  Violence is expensive and exhausting, both in terms of resources and psychologically, so market is all but certain to pursue and find ways that can handle the problem better and more peacefully.

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